Arctic shipping set to explode in legal vacuum, experts warn

As the Arctic ice cap melts away, shipping in the environmentally fragile region is expected to balloon, but there is virtually no legal framework to regulate the new activity, experts cautioned Monday.

“The problem is that the ice is going to recede and we are going to see an increase in the economic activity in this area … There is going to be a huge expansion of shipping,” said Tatiana Saksina of the WWF’s International Arctic Programme.

When the Northwest Passage becomes free of ice in the summer months, something scientists say could happen in a matter of years, “there will be an invasion of alien species, we’re going to see over-fishing, we’re going to see an expansion of petroleum development … Far stricter rules are needed,” she told AFP.

Saksina is one of around 40 legal experts gathered at the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland for a three-day conference aimed at staking out a new legal framework for the fragile and changing polar regions.

While commercial activities in the Arctic have so far been limited by the region’s inaccessibility and its extreme weather conditions, scientists now say it is a question of “when”, not “if,” the ice cap will vanish during summer.

An ice-free North Pole holds the promise of far shorter shipping routes between Europe and Asia and of making the region’s untold wealth of natural resources, including oil and gas, more accessible.

Yet as governments and companies line up to get in on the action, experts warn there are still virtually no laws regulating their activities in a region with one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.

While there are already certain regulations in place, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, David Vanderzwaag of Canada’s Dalhousie University points out that they are mainly non-binding general guidelines that do not take into account the specific nature of the Arctic.

“We really are moving into an era where guidelines will no longer be adequate. We need binding requirements,” he told AFP.

“We will have more tourism ships going up, eventually more minerals being shipped out of the Arctic, oil and gas being shipped out. All these things are on the horizon, and some are already happening, and the question is, are we prepared?” he asked.

“Globally, there’s a considerable amount of pollution that is allowed into the oceans, but the question is, are the global environmental standards adequate for the Arctic? And if there is a problem with a tourism ship up there, are we prepared to deal with that?” he continued.

Saksina agreed, pointing out that “we are already witnessing the expansion of tourism. All these cruise ships in the Arctic obviously put pressure on the marine environment, but first and foremost we see here a danger for human life, because if something happens in these waters there is no mechanism for response.”

“It’s a quite dangerous situation,” she said, stressing that the Arctic Ocean is particularly difficult to navigate due to floating ice blocks and lacking daylight.

“And nobody knows how to clean oil spills on ice. We have no technique to do it now,” she said.

Timo Koivurova of the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre in Finland also emphasised the urgency of putting in place a binding legal framework that takes into account the peculiarities of the Arctic, insisting that unbridled, rapid change in the region could lead to catastrophe.

“The problem is that if and when these economic operations enter the area, then it is already too late to put in place any kind of international treaty,” he told AFP.

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